Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Blight: Initial Thoughts

Frog God Games is Kickstarting a book called the Blight, by Richard Pett. It's the extension of adventures he wrote a long time ago for Dungeon Magazine, but as a result of doing so he lost the intellectual property for the "Stye," which was the original setting of his adventures. The Blight is a reconfiguration of that setting, into a full city description.

It's an evil city, which everyone loves, but at the outset I had some reservations about it from the standpoint of traditional gaming. It seemed awfully Victorian, and I was very worried about the risk of seeming like a Steampunk mashup with D&D, which isn't my thing. While I know that Richard is an excellent writer (his adventure in Heart of the Razor was my favorite of a strong group), the overall concept of the city appeared to me as something that might not work well.

On further reading, and asking one key question, I think the book is good. First, the key question that I asked was, "Can my guys walk around in plate mail?" Overall, in terms of flavor, this seems to me to be a touchstone question for whether a city "fits" with the need for a beer and pretzels option in traditional gaming. An acceptable answer is still, "Yes, but the city guard will arrest you," since that could be true in any number of medieval cities. A problematic answer would be, "That's not the city's technological level," or "plate mail is not used."

The answer to the question was actually, "Sure, it's a good way to handle the monsters."

Good answer.

My reading of the introductory material, which is still unconverted from Pathfinder format, is:
(a) No firearms
(b) Dimensional travel is highly involved in the city's flavor
(c) There is indeed a very Victorian feel to the place, but it's an extrapolation of what would happen in a city that used necromantically-powered industry for centuries to push itself into a Victorian age without steam or firearms. It's London powered by necromancy and golems.
(d) The result is something akin to Michael Moorcock's Granbretan in the Hawkmoon books, where there's a sinister use of technology without losing the fantasy element. This isn't to say that the result is similar to Granbretan, it's quite different indeed, but it's that sort of mixture. If Granbretan mashed together Nazi Germany and England with magic-baroque technology, the Blight also takes a magic-baroque technology (necromancy/golems) and mashes it into Victorian England with elements of creeping dimensional and planar features.

My next post will probably focus on the Granbretan analogy, because there's another Moorcock analogy here too: The War Hound and the World's Pain. Essentially Pett thinks like Moorcock, and has produced here something that Moorcock might have developed but didn't.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"Dark Medieval" Fantasy in the Borderland Provinces

The entire Lost Lands campaign is usually described as “Dark Medieval," and this is a bit about what that means. To me, at least. If you're a fan of what I'm talking about in this post, you should definitely go and check out the Kickstarter, which is running now (until Nov 15, 2015).
What do people mean when they talk about “Dark Medieval” as a way of describing the Borderland Provinces, or the Lost Lands, or Necromancer Games books? At a surface glance, the world looks fairly traditional: there are elves, there are halflings, there are wizards … what’s the big deal? How is that “dark?”

Basically, Frog God Games offers a “film noir” version of escapist fantasy, in contrast to Tolkien’s epic and folkloric approach to the same genre. Our adventures tend to have lots of horrific elements underlying the apparent reality, which is why you’ll often see us saying, “All is not as it seems” when we’re talking about the Lands. Where the Forgotten Realms have a strong tendency toward high fantasy and heroism, our world is a bit … well … ickier.

One of the strong themes of the campaign is that beneath the civilized veneer of things, there is actually a seething mass of rot, evil, heresy, and supernatural threat. Again, “all is not as it seems.” The Borderland Provinces campaign book, as a supplement, has more focus on the actual veneer than an adventure book. What does the “normal” world look like when I’m not in one of these dungeons? So there is a lot of material about culture, history, trade, and government that would be a bit boring if it weren’t for the fact that it’s written in a way to best drive the game master’s creativity about what kinds of adventures arise from that context. And of course, it also reveals a lot of information about what’s beneath that veneer, a peek into the aforementioned seething mass of rot, evil, heresy, and supernatural threat.

The Adventures in the Borderland Provinces book, of course, is all about the dark underbelly and nothing about the veneer. I'll have more to say about that book later.

If you’re interested in the sort of fiction driving this “dark medieval” world of ours, we can point to a few influential sources for those who are curious.

The first of these is undoubtedly Clark Ashton Smith. Smith's stories are broken up into five “worlds:” Averoigne, Hyperborea, Mars, Poseidonis, and Zothique. In particular, our adventures are comparable to the stories from the Averoigne cycle. Many of these stories are available online, in particular at the Eldritchdark site, which unfortunately uses white text on a dark background, making it a bit hard to read. However, as an introduction to Averoigne, you may want to take a look at one of the archetypal Averoigne stories, the “Colossus of Ylourgne.”

Another “film noir” fantasy author is Jack Vance. In particular, the Lyonesse books and the Dying Earth books are good examples of noir fantasy. The Lyonesse books are a strong influence on Matt’s Borderlands. Vance takes what appears to be a fairly light-hearted fairy tale world, but spins an extraordinarily dark view of its inhabitants. For Vance, the underlying horror isn’t the supernatural underpinning of the cosmic world, as it is for Clark Ashton Smith. For Vance, the underlying horror of a world is the people who inhabit it. If you haven’t read the Lyonesse books, be warned that many people find the entire first half of the first book to be tedious. After that, the pace picks up to an almost breakneck level, though. The books are Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc.
For starters, to learn more, check out the Wikipedia entry for the Lyonesse Trilogy

There are some great examples of noir fantasy from a later period, and one of the greatest is Glen Cook’s Black Company series of novels. All of these are excellent, although there are rather a lot of them. The first three are generally called The Books of the North: The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose. Cook’s fantasy world is very bleak and quite terrifying, seen from the perspective of some people who are seriously out of their league and watching their options dwindle away rapidly.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Borderland Provinces Kickstarter Launch

We're launching Lost Lands: Borderland Provinces Kickstarter today! The Borderlands are the campaign world containing Rappan Athuk and the Lost City of Barakus, plus several other Necromancer Games books from the d20 era. Not only that, it also links up the long-awaited northwest route from these areas to the city of Bard’s Gate, and ultimately connects Bard’s Gate to the campaign area described in Cults of the Sundered Kingdoms and the Domain of Hawkmoon.

A bare-bones pdf resource for the campaign is $12 (although this is only for a very do-it-yourself DM). The main campaign book is $35 plus shipping, and there are also tons of additional resources that can be added like an a la carte sort of menu.

I wrote this one based on outlines from Greg Vaughan's canon of Necromancer Games, and I'm really hoping that the lower price-point (which I really pushed) and the centrality of the area will make this the biggest Kickstarter we've ever done. It's also the first setting material that we've done for 5e as well as PFRPG and S&W, which I think will interest a lot of people.

Because it's a printing of multiple versions, this has a very high funding goal relative to the price of the books, so I'm biting my nails a little bit about meeting the goal. If you're a Necromancer fan, a Frog God fan, or just looking for good campaign resources, please come take a look. (My credibility on the whole "print a smaller book, price it low, and people will come" strategy is at stake...)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Old School Methods 7: Fly

Little advertisement before we start (and I'm going to keep this up until the Kickstarter finishes): go to the Northlands Saga Kickstarter; it's worth the time and money.

Maneuverability under stress or in difficult conditions. Flying isn't about the inherent ability to fly, it's about how well you fly when using a spell or other sort of device.

When it has to do with conditions, this is what I'd generally call an internal game, or a game within a game. When it has to to with combat tactics, it's got a direct application to an existing set of rules. When it's a game within a game, you're talking about a randomized way of applying something from the character sheet to a way of getting a benefit or suffering a setback.

Tests like this are either one-or-the-other (fall or stay mounted on flying carpet, accurately get between the wind-whipped pillars, etc), or there might be degrees of success (how fast you reach the objective 10 miles away through the wind).

In either case, the skill of flying pretty much applies only to magic-users, since that's the only class with any possible training, but there has to be a way of determining it for members of other classes as well.

Method 1 (simple resolution)
For one-or-the-other, binary-type tests

For non-magic-users, use a DEX check if it's about close-in flying. Use a WIS check if it's about long-distance flying through obstacles. Give magic-users a bonus on the roll (if this makes sense under the circumstances). Alternatively, use a saving throw (this focuses on level rather than attributes). The more doctrinaire you are about being "old school" the more you lean toward character level as the most important factor. I think in this situation that would be dogmatic, but opinions may vary.

Method 2 (series of challenges)
If the situation is an important one, and is more like a game within a game, it's either just extended random checks (sketchy in terms of testing player skill, but exciting) or it's something where player skill comes into play (more interesting but can also bog down the pace). Player skill requires a puzzle or a tactical decision based on knowledge, and I can't off the top of my head think of how flying would give rise to this kind of a game. For a pure excitement-boost series of randomized checks, the situation would be based on a series of changing conditions (wind, obstacles, etc). Possibly even these are randomly determined.

Given that player skill and character level have no real bearing on a flying-type challenge, I would tend to avoid these, and treat flying success as either completely automatic, or determined by a base chance if it's distance travel. It can be used as an excitement booster, but if that's the case, make it short and fairly easy. Excitement boosters should ALWAYS have a second chance to pull the fat out of the fire. If for no other reason than to boost the tension even higher, but also to avoid the feeling that a bad outcome was determined entirely by the dice.

Art: The Flying Carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov (1880)
Music: Of course.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Old School Methods 6: Disguise and Escape Artist

Series continues. Word from our sponsor is to check out the Northlands Saga Kickstarter at

Continuing in my survey of methods and options for old school resolutions of different challenges. Today, the challenges addressed by the skills "Disguise" and "Escape Artist."
Disguise is treated as an "opposed check" in games from 3E onward, meaning that the character's roll is set off against a die roll by the person who might see through the disguise. In older games, the only place this shows up as a "rule" is for the assassin class. Much like climbing and the thief class, it's definitely true that SOME sort of resolution is needed for regular old people making a less-professional attempt at the art.

I generally use this as a flat percentage chance (or a # in 6) to succeed, based on the situation. After all, disguises from a game point of view (a) aren't a trained skill, so nothing about a class or level (other than for assassins) really suggests that level would be a factor, (b) aren't obviously tied to any specific attribute other than slightly to charisma, and (c) don't have an offsetting role-playing component unless the disguise fails, which isn't the issue here.

So in general, I recommend using a base chance, picking the likelihood based on the situation.

Escape Artist:
Try using a check against the character's dexterity (3 or 4d6 if you use a bell curve, d20 if you use a linear chance). Either give a thief an advantage, pose a thiefly solution (you can pick the lock on the cuffs, but at a disadvantage), or allow the thief a dex check when no one else gets one. It's perfectly okay to just say that it's not possible to escape at this time.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Old School Methods 5: Diplomacy and Disable Device

Series continues. Word from our sponsor is to check out the Northlands Saga Kickstarter at

Diplomacy is one of the skill checks that makes the least sense in an old-school type game, since it's almost always a function of player interaction. I truly can't think of any situations where diplomacy, in particular, makes sense to randomize or to base on a character sheet number unless you're working with an entire suite of skill sets in character generation, and even then I think it's a bit weak as a concept. How to convert or use this concept, focusing on concrete ways in which the challenge can be met through player interaction (examples of concrete methods italicized):

"The guard can be persuaded if he is given a token of authority of some kind, and he is not likely to recognize a forgery."
"The merchant can be convinced to assist the characters if they manage to play on the fact that his business will be badly affected if the dragons keep eating people."
"The bartender is lonely and bitter about his life: any friendly approach will result in a flood of useful information and offered assistance."

Disable Device
This skill in the new-school arsenal presumes that the device has been found already, so it is a direct analogue to the thief skills such as "delicate tasks" (in S&W) or "find/remove traps." What's different is that (a) this skill broadens the ability to non-thief characters, which isn't unreasonable as long as the probabilities are very different for a thief vs. another character class. After all, this is where thieves are supposed to shine. (b) The OTHER issue isn't something structural about new-school approaches, but it's a very, very, very common approach in modern adventure design. In more modern adventure design, the traps tend to get harder to detect as the character level advances. I think this tends to devalue the thief if it's across the board. There should still be plenty of traps and locks that are NORMAL in difficulty so the thief can excel. Granted, the super-awesome traps set by deadlier villains will create situations where there's a really tough challenge, but I prefer to have a range that is weighted toward the idea that on normal, everyday trap-triggers, the thief's advancing levels actually mean more successes. There are other reasons for this, and not space to into it.

So, examples of non-thieves disabling traps and other devices:
(1) is there a reason for not just keeping this in the thief's domain? "A thief can disable this trap normally. If a PLAYER describes the disarming process, it can also be disarmed." [this allows for player skill to trump the character sheet, with no character-sheet option for solving it if you aren't the thief you chose to have for precisely this reason].
(2) "Thieves can disable the trap [either normally or with a penalty or bonus. Members of other character classes can also attempt to disarm the trap, but with only a [base chance, why not, it's got nothing to do with level since it's not trained for their class]. [another alternative, if it's just a test of not having your hands shake, then use a dexterity check] DON'T FORGET to compare the probabilities and make sure the thief has the better chance!!

That's it for this installment -- hope you enjoyed!

Art from

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Fairly good book

Off the general topic of the blog, but I'm reading an omnibus edition of three novels by Julie E. Czernada: Survival, Migration, and Regeneration. They are science fiction; fairly good for when you've run out of Bernard Cornwell and Neil Gaiman, and you like David Brin type books. I wouldn't recommend them as top-of-the-line, but  not a bad read so far. I'm about in the middle of the second book.

Between getting the air conditioning fixed and fuming through a long power outage today, I've got no fantasy/gaming ideas to post today, so a better-than-average book is all I've got to offer.

EDIT: I got tired of the series about half way through.